With numerous African countries on high alert from terror threats, Gary Noakes takes a look at the effect this is having on tourist numbers and airlift across the vast continent.
A brief glance at some figures reveals how much catching up Africa has to do with the rest of the world when it comes to tourism. This vast continent accounts for just 5% of global tourist arrivals – around 58 million – with two countries, Morocco (AF300) and South Africa (AF250), accounting for approximately a third of this total.
Such concentration means that events in just one part of the continent can have a huge impact, with Egypt (AF500) and Tunisia (AF575), two of Africa’s top five destinations, suffering big setbacks in the past few years. The 58 million total, as verified by the UNWTO, represents an industry share that is falling and out of line with the global trend.
The African Development Bank will publish its latest Africa Tourism Monitor in December, but its 2015 league table of countries with the most international arrivals shows some familiar trends.
Two countries, Morocco and South Africa, are vying for the top spot. Morocco has since 2013 attracted more than 10 million international visitors, fuelled by Marrakech and Agadir, which have 60% of the market. Marrakech in particular has been a magnet for low-cost flights from all over Europe.
Latest Moroccan government figures for 2016 give an arrivals figure for the country of 10.3 million, up 1.5% on 2015. However, UK visitors fell 6% and foreign tourist arrivals as a whole fell 0.9%, indicating nervousness about North Africa in general.
Likely to grab top place in 2017 is South Africa, which attracted a record 10 million international tourists last year, a 12.8% increase on 2015. Growth here is fuelled by visitors from central and South America, Middle East and Asia, all of which have increased by more than 30% (albeit from small base) while other regions recorded double-digit increases.
The weak rand is a big part of the reason for South Africa’s popularity, but also its strategy to ensure it is no longer just perceived as a safari destination but one that offers gastronomy, wine, heritage and scenic trails. South Africa is also seen as largely free from the threat of Islamic terrorism, unlike North Africa.
One nation that knows this only too well is Tunisia, which next year should return as a mainstream European beach destination following the terrorist attacks of 2015. Visitor numbers are already up 14% this year and Thomas Cook is set to return with a tentative UK programme in spring 2018. Its clients from continental Europe have continued to visit during the two years of UK restrictions after the massacre of 38 mainly Tui clients at Sousse in 2015.
Tui is already sending clients there from Belgium and Germany, but understandably has still to decide when to offer a programme from the UK, whose Foreign Office gave the all-clear to return to the country’s key tourism regions in July. Tui’s reluctance means Tunisair may step forward to provide airlift from the UK, with soundings being taken by the airline at WTM London for summer 2018. There is ground to make up, with 2016 arrivals of 5.7 million, down 6.8% and a 20% fall since 2014.
Egypt’s troubles continue, with only 5.3 million international visitors in 2016, compared with more than 9 million a year earlier, when a Russian airliner was downed with a suspected bomb at Sharm el Sheikh, and 14 million in 2010. Conflicting messages mean a general reluctance to travel there. In August, for example, Canada warned against all non-essential travel to Egypt, but this did not apply to the Red Sea resorts or upper Nile. In the same month, the UK did not advise against travel to Cairo, Alexandria, the Nile and Red Sea area, but warned not to use Sharm el Sheikh airport, meaning no UK flights there.
Last place in the league of Africa’s top five countries for international arrivals is usually something of a wildcard, with Algeria holding this position in 2011-2014. It has now been ousted by Zimbabwe (AF370), which in 2015 attracted 2.06 million international tourists, 42% of these from neighbouring South Africa. Zimbabwe is expected to reach 2.2 million this year but 2018’s fortunes may be hampered by it being an election year.
Africa as a whole is proving popular due to favourable exchange rates, according to Vanessa Dean, Africa product manager for specialist UK operator Carrier Travel.
“The main challenge we face for Africa is availability for peak travel dates. Many of the key lodges we feature are small boutique properties with not many rooms and therefore they do book out very quickly,” she said. “The noticeable trend is that 2018 bookings are flying and travel for next year is particularly strong across the board.”
Carrier expects Uganda (AF100) to reap the benefits of a $57 million investment in tourism and for Namibia (AF200) to be in demand, while Kenya (AF200) safaris, if not beach holidays, are making a comeback.
Dean said Zimbabwe was also “getting back on track”, aided by a new Kenya Airways (AF200) flight between Cape Town and Nairobi via Livingstone. “It means travellers can take in the Great Migration in Kenya, Victoria Falls and a stay in Cape Town all in one trip.”
Intra-African air access is a big issue. It can be easier to fly via Europe to get from one side of the continent to the other and it will be many years before the hub and spoke model of Africa’s four major airlines is matched by a comparable number of direct intra-African routes. Ethiopian Airlines (AF150), Kenya Airways, Egyptair (AF500) and South African Airways (SAA) (AF250) have strong networks, but the Middle East carriers have impeded their intercontinental expansion in recent years.
This, coupled with a variety of legacy airline issues, has meant things have not been easy for Africa’s airlines. Kenya Airways lost $500 million in its past two financial years, although a turnaround programme saw half-year losses to the end of September 2016 cut by 60%.
SAA has its own problems, coming close to liquidation in mid-2017 having already made a public appeal for funds of $1 billion a year earlier. SAA is hampered by having old aircraft and an inefficient route network and these factors, combined with South Africa’s geographical position, mean SAA has run an operational loss for years.
Egyptair, meanwhile, is hampered by the perceived terrorist risk in the country, and has lost more than $10 billion since the 2011 uprisings. It is expected to suffer another £650 million loss this year.
Of the big four carriers, it is left to profitable, expanding Ethiopian to continue its stated ambition to serve almost the entire continent from its Addis Ababa hub. Ethiopian, which made a £202 million profit in the year to June 2016, has launched seven new routes this year, including Victoria Falls, the Madagascar capital Antananarivo, and, further afield, Chengdu and Singapore.
Africa can count only one airline attempting to break the hub and spoke model, fastjet, which is based in Tanzania (AF140) and Zimbabwe (AF370) and has only three aircraft. Reliance almost entirely on intra-African business means it has yet to make headway, losing $48 million last year and reining in expansion.
One issue for fastjet and all other carriers is visas. The African Development Bank says the continent is hampered by the need for Africans themselves to obtain visas to visit 55% of other African countries and because Africans can get visas on arrival in only a quarter of these countries. This will change, following the unveiling last year of the first biometric common African passport, but it will be a slow process and another factor that hampers tourism development.
One African state with a determined niche tourism strategy is Rwanda (AF120).
The landlocked country, the size of the US state of Maryland, is developing its own upmarket tourism product aided by investment in its flag carrier, Rwandair (AF120).
Rwanda is one of only three countries where rare mountain gorillas can be viewed in their natural habitat and it has allowed the construction of a range of high-end accommodation to match a trekking permit fee that was doubled to $1,500 a day in May. Additionally, some of the 55 miles of shoreline of the country’s other big asset, Lake Kivu, is to be developed as an alternative attraction to gorilla viewing.
“We feel that we are almost at capacity with activities around the national parks,” said Yamina Karitanyi, Rwanda’s High Commissioner to the UK, who adds that tourism is already the country’s biggest foreign exchange earner. Latest figures, for 2015, show that Rwanda achieved 1.3 million tourist visits, a figure expected to increase by 4% in 2016.
Better air access is helping; Rwanda already has direct flight access from Belgium, Amsterdam and Doha, but government backing has seen it bring long-haul aircraft into the Rwandair fleet that are now serving Brussels and the UK. A link to New York is due to start in July 2018.